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Green Wheels

Car sharing goes electric

Published January 11, 2013

Car sharing is taking off; so much so that Avis recently announced it will pay $500 million to acquire the ZipCar system.

Sharing is a great idea for city dwellers who want a vehicle for short trips without the burden of owning one, or brief access to a second car from time to time.

Some of these services include a few electric vehicles in their fleet. Paris has the first in the world that’s all electric.

It’s called AutoLib; a joint venture between the giant Bolloré Company, which provides and maintains the system’s 1,750 Italian-made Bluecars, and the City of Paris, which contributes parking spots, charging stations and other infrastructure.

Bathium Canada Inc., a Bolloré subsidiary, makes the lithium-metal-polymer batteries at a factory near Montreal.

The basic operating principle is the same as for other car-sharing programs. Once drivers have registered, they can go, whenever they want, to a vehicle station, swipe an identity card to gain access to a vehicle, then, drive and return it. The rental ends when the car is plugged in again. Each use is expected to last no more than three hours.

There’s none of the fuss or paperwork involved with conventional rentals, and the car can be returned to any Autolib location.

The cost of a rental depends on which option the user picks. In addition to the annual registration of 144 Euros (about $190 Cdn.), each half-hour of rental costs about $6.50. A monthly package costs about $39 and $7.75 per half hour. For a week, it’s $19.50 and $9 per half hour. Registration for a day is $13 and $9 per half hour.

This might seem expensive, until it’s compared to the cost of owning a car — generally pegged at more than $8,500 per year — which is likely used for only an hour most days. And AutoLib pays for the electricity, maintenance and insurance.

But there are strict rules: An insurance deductable starts at $195 and rises sharply with each accident. Drivers who drop off a garbage-strewn car might be hit with a cleaning fee of nearly $40. Heavy loads are prohibited, and only the registered driver is allowed behind the wheel.

AutoLib charges an extra $2.60 per half hour for cars taken outside the Isle-de-Paris, the urban region centred on the French capital that is about 33-per-cent larger than the GTA. And drivers who have an accident or breakdown, or run out of battery power, beyond the authorized zone face a recovery fee of $400.

The 30-kilowatt-hour battery packs claim 250 km between charges for highway driving and 150 in urban areas. Although these numbers come from the highly optimistic and unrealistic European tests, range shouldn’t be an issue since most rentals are short, averaging 40 minutes, and there are plenty of recharging spots — Autolib has 735 locations and a total of 3,000 parking places.

Since the program permits three rentals per day, drivers with a battery running on fumes can simply stop at any location, plug in the depleted car and start another rental with a fully charged vehicle.

About 54,000 people have registered and the service recently recorded its 1-millionth rental.

Autolib aims to expand to 3,000 cars and 1,000 locations this year and to post a profit in 2014, when it predicts 80,000 subscribers.

Whether the service comes to North America will depend on if potential sales could justify the investment, says Bathium’s general manager, Jean-Luc Monfort.

Despite its expected growth, Autolib will still represent a tiny fraction of Paris traffic. But it’s a decent start, and a demonstration of how rethinking car ownership and use could shape the future of electric vehicles.

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